Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 16:22-34) transports me to the confines of Shawshank Prison, where Andy Dufresne redeems his time by offering words of dangerous hope to his fellow inmates, before eventually escaping to freedom. The Steven King novel and movie pack quite a wallop in this case study of freedom and responsibility, where we discover that there are people who cannot handle one or the other of these twin human experiences. Brooks, the prison’s sweet old librarian, finally completes his long sentence and makes his way into the wide world of freedom. But after 50 years behind bars, he can’t make the adjustment. He sends a letter to his former cellmates, telling them how the world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. He writes of having nightmares, of waking up not knowing where he is. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay, the letter concludes. Brooks hangs himself in his half-way house bedroom, after using a pocketknife to carve three more words, “Brooks Was Here” into the crossbeam. While Brooks was afraid of freedom, prison warden Norton was afraid of responsibility. Once it became clear what Andy had done, that upon escape he had sent evidence of the warden’s criminality and profiteering to the authorities, the anxious prison-keeper pulled out a pistol and put a bullet in his head.
From the 560 page novel adapted into a two and a half-hour movie, we turn to today’s passage for another treatment of freedom and responsibility. The efficiency and elegance of biblical language is one of holy writ’s many graces; Luke packs quite a wallop into a 450 word short story here in the book of Acts. We find Paul and Silas in roles similar to Andy Defresne – wrongly imprisoned and beaten. Like Andy, they find and express hope through music, singing praises in their dark dungeon. Unlike Andy, they didn’t need months to dig out a makeshift tunnel; one bone-rattling seismic charge was all it took for the prison doors to fly open and for the chains to fall from their feet. And unlike Andy, these two bearers of the good news of liberation didn’t hightail it to a Mexican beach. They stayed put. The prison-keeper didn’t know this, and was, like Warden Norton, unable at first to contemplate the consequences of his supposed irresponsibility, as he feared the prisoners had escaped. Before he could pull the trigger, or in his case fall on his sword, though, Paul and Silas offered him words of dangerous hope, words that would forever change his life. In the end, it was the warden who escaped with his life, as he found salvation and a new community for himself and his family.
Luke’s short story of one who contemplated suicide but chose life reminds me of an even more economical expression of the possibilities and consequences of love’s freedom and responsibilities, a 27-line poem by Langston Hughes. The poet writes:
I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn’t,
So I jumped in and sank.
I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn’t a-been so cold
I might’ve sunk and died.
But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!
I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.
I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn’t a-been so high
I might’ve jumped and died.
But it was High up there! It was high!
So since I’m still here livin’,
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love–
But for livin’ I was born
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry–
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
I can imagine Paul and Silas and the jailer smiling at this poem. And I can imagine Jesus smiling at it, too, while contemplating his own struggle to make the adjustment from a timeless eternal realm into a world that had gone and got itself in a big damn hurry. Maybe Jesus, too, had been at times frightened by nightmares. But before he came to the point of carving “Jesus Was Here” into his own crossbeam, he found community with a bunch of scared sinners, demonstrating the defiant faith expressed so eloquently by Langston Hughes: Life is fine! Fine as wine!
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.